Category Archives: Shakespeare

WEST SIDE STORY AT 60: THE DAZZLINGLY MODERN MUSICAL THAT’LL BE HARD TO BEAT ·

(Guy Lodge’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/18; Photo:  West Side Story: never had bodies in motion been used to shape and dictate a film’s own rhythm quite like this. Photograph: United Artists/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock.)

With Steven Spielberg’s remake almost out, the 1961 original still feels thrillingly contemporary, a tough act to follow

It’s the opening credits that do it right away. Following three eerie whistles over a black screen, West Side Story explodes into a full screen of poster-paint colour – shifting from orange to red to magenta to royal blue – as Leonard Bernstein’s four-minute overture brassily clatters into action. Over the colour, a stark design flourish: seemingly random brigades of parallel vertical black lines, only coalescing at the overture’s end into the tip of Manhattan, viewed from the air, cuing a vertiginous bird’s-eye montage of New York City in motion. That chipper yet chillingly disembodied whistle returns; by the time we finally see a human face, six coolly riveting minutes has passed.

 

This whole title sequence – from the graphics to the aerial photography – was visualised by Saul Bass, the distinctive graphic designer then favoured by such aggressive stylists as Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger. It still seems, perhaps even more than anything that follows in West Side Story, sleekly and breath-catchingly modern: a coup of expensive minimalism at the outset of a splashy Hollywood production. That was no accident: in 1961, United Artists set out for the film to be something bracing and new in the movie musical, an industry staple that was looking increasingly out of step with a youth culture turning toward rock’n’roll.

The previous two years had been rough ones for the genre. In 1958, South Pacific may have topped the annual box office while Gigi swept the Oscars, but since then, the only Hollywood song-and-dance films to prove even mild hits had been minor comedies, Disney cartoons or Elvis Presley vehicles. Hopes were high for West Side Story to put the gloss back on to the prestige musical – the 1957 Broadway musical had been a hit with critics and audiences alike – but the studio knew the usual style of overstuffed Technicolor spectacle wouldn’t cut it. The film had to be as propulsively dance-oriented as the stage show, yet expansive and kinetic as cinema. It had to honour the classically romantic roots of its source – this was a riff on Romeo and Juliet, after all – while Saying Something Significant about modern youth and urban society. It had to be family-friendly yet appealing to tearaway teens; it had to court Oscar voters and high-culture critics alike.

It was, in effect, strategised and focus-grouped to within an inch of its life, down to the unusual compromise made on the directorial front. Genius choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose work had been so integral to the stage show’s success, was hired to direct the musical sequences, despite having zero film experience. Industry journeyman Robert Wise was enlisted for the straight dramatic scenes, not despite his lack of musical experience but because of that: best known for stolid black-and-white dramas on stern subjects (he had recently been Oscar-nominated for the grim death-row biopic I Want to Live!), he was intended to bring some grownup gravitas to the exercise. Not that the producers were above naked populism when casting the leads: whether or not there’s any truth to the enduring rumour that Elvis Presley was approached to be the film’s Tony, teen-idol potential took precedence over musical ability: 23-year-olds Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer didn’t sing a note in the film, but couldn’t have lip-synched more prettily.

All of which makes West Side Story sound like a desperately over-calculated, even cynical exercise. Yet as it plays out, from that Saul Bass aesthetic masterstroke onwards, the film remains a blinder: somehow checking off each of those aforementioned, contradictory boxes, it’s formally electric, musically alive and emotionally pummelling, even as its dubbed leads trade in borrowed feeling. West Side Story isn’t unflawed, in ways the show wasn’t either: its overwriting of Shakespeare to lend proceedings at least half a happy ending, with Maria alive and distraught, can’t quite touch the frenzied melodrama of Romeo and Juliet’s dual-death fiasco, and there’s no getting round the fact that its sweet, doe-eyed leads are given a lesson in musical magnetism every time their older counterparts Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are allowed to burn up the frame. (That West Side Story won 10 Oscars, including two for Moreno and Chakiris, while Wood and Beymer weren’t nominated was a harsh way to stress the point.)

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HERODOTUS (ON BBC RADIO 4) ·

(from BBC 4)

HERODOTUS

In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Greek writer known as the father of histories, dubbed by his detractors as the father of lies. Herodotus (c484 to 425 BC or later) was raised in Halicarnassus in modern Turkey when it was part of the Persian empire and, in the years after the Persian Wars, set about an inquiry into the deep background to those wars. He also aimed to preserve what he called the great and marvellous deeds of Greeks and non-Greeks, seeking out the best evidence for past events and presenting the range of evidence for readers to assess. Plutarch was to criticise Herodotus for using this to promote the least flattering accounts of his fellow Greeks, hence the ‘father of lies’, but the depth and breadth of his Histories have secured his reputation from his lifetime down to the present day.

With

Tom Harrison
Professor of Ancient History at the University of St Andrews

Esther Eidinow
Professor of Ancient History at the University of Bristol

And

Paul Cartledge
A. G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge

Producer: Simon Tillotson

(view on BBC 4)

SHAKESPEARE CUISINE:  THE THREE MOST POPULAR RECIPES FROM BEFORE ‘FARM TO TABLE’ ·

(From Shakespeare & Beyond; Photo: Savory Cogs Biscuits. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.)

With the Folger’s four-year Before ‘Farm to Table’ project drawing to a close, we’re revisiting three of the most popular early modern recipes adapted by the project team and shared on the Shakespeare & Beyond blog.

Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, the inaugural project of the Mellon initiative in collaborative research, used the pervasiveness of food in everyday life as a window into early modern culture. Recipes played a central role in this exploration of food-related topics, given that the Folger is home to the world’s largest collection of early modern English manuscript recipe books.

new website, launched July 27, documents the multi-faceted work of Before ‘Farm to Table’, which included research, lectures, exhibitions, and theater collaborations at the Folger.

Enjoy the recipes shared below and read more blog posts from the Before ‘Farm to Table’ team.

A pirate botanist’s hot chocolate

Our most popular recipe was for William Hughes’s hot chocolate. Marissa Nicosia adapted this early modern recipe for the 2019 Folger exhibition First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas:

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THE HISTORY BEHIND SHAKESPEARE’S HENRIAD SERIES ·

Mollie Murk and Tony Reimonenq III play soldiers in Henry V. | Photo by Jon Cherry

(Marty Rosen’s article appeared in Leo Weekly, 7/14.)

In 1398, King Richard II of England did something that astonished the cutthroat, blood-soaked world of medieval England: he stopped two noblemen from killing one another.

The incident is recounted in great detail in Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland” and in another chronicle by Edward Hall — and should you ever find yourself wishing desperately for another season of “Game of Thrones,” just download Holinshed from Project Gutenberg — you’ll soon wonder how anyone at all survived the Middle Ages.

These chronicles, published in the 1500s, had an enormous influence on the course of English culture and history. They became source material for a slew of Shakespeare’s plays (not only the histories, but “Macbeth “and “King Lear”), as well as a number of his contemporaries.  

What happened in 1398 is that two noblemen, Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, came to Richard’s court and accused one another of treason. Richard tried to talk them down, but failed: They threw their gages (armored gloves) upon the ground and in the custom of the day the challenged one another to trial by combat as part of a code of honor.

According to both chronicles, the day of their battle was a grand affair, with some 10,000 knights on hand to keep the peace in case a fight broke out between the men’s factions.

But, at the last possible minute, Richard halted the affair and sentenced both men to exile. This moment leads inexorably to Richard being deposed and Bolingbroke eventually becoming King Henry IV.

For hundreds of years, trial by combat was a fixture of European law, and though King Richard II had the power to stop the duel, his doing so must have felt as disruptive as, say, a U.S. President deciding to suspend the Supreme Court.

It was such a fraught moment that 200 years later, in 1595, Shakespeare used the incident to kick of his play “Richard II” and the epic four play cycle that contemporary critics call The Henriad: “Richard II,” “Henry IV” (parts 1 and 2), and “Henry V.”  

These four plays cover a quarter century that ushers in a new world order. By the end of “Henry V,” the romanticized old world order — represented in “Richard II” by John of Gaunt, who famously laments Richard’s degradation of his beloved “sceptered isle” — has given way to a world where “honor” can first be mocked by the smart, cynical Falstaff — and then comically satirized as Shakespeare depicts people in the scruffy lower classes start to mimic the language and behavior of the gentry.

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‘HAMLET’ IN JAPAN (FOLGER FINDS HISTORIC 1930s PHOTOS) ·

(from Shakespeare & Beyond, 7/ 6/ 2021.)

In a recent post on the Folger’s Collation blog, assistant curator Elizabeth DeBold shared a small set of photographs, newly added to the Folger collection, that document a 1933 Japanese production of Hamlet:

These five photos provide a glimpse of a production of Hamlet performed at the Tsukiji Shogekijo, the “Tsukiji Little Theater,” aptly named and located in the Tsukiji district of Tokyo. The theater was built in 1923 for the express purpose of staging Western (European, Russian, and American) drama, as a part of an intellectual movement away from traditional forms of Japanese theater. This movement, called shingeki, or “new theater,” in Japan sought to bring many of the new western dramatic methodologies inspired by the rise of socialism and expressionism into Japanese culture.

Read more on The Collation.

The photographs join other items in the Folger collection related to Shakespeare in Japan, such as this page from a 1905 issue of The Sketch, a British illustrated weekly journal. The photograph shows actor/director Otojiro Kawakami as the Ghost in Hamlet, dressed in a Japanese military uniform.

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BARD DAY’S WORK: WHAT I LEARNED FROM EAVESDROPPING ON RSC REHEARSALS ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/14; Photo: ‘It’s about the process, not the product’ … Lily Nichol as Joan la Pucelle. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz. Copyright @ Royal Shakespeare Company.)

The Royal Shakespeare Company is letting the public watch the usually secret processes towards performance – from clapping games to verse sessions

The creative process normally takes place behind closed doors. But the RSC has boldly upended that idea by streaming its Open Rehearsal Project for Henry VI Part One. What this means, in practice, is that cameras are admitted for three sessions each day. At 10am we watch a half-hour company warm-up. From noon, for 90 minutes, we get to see either a class (movement, combat, verse-speaking) or the rehearsal of a scene. Then at 6pm we eavesdrop on a green-room chat, in which company members mull over progress so far. After dipping in and out for the first fortnight – and there’s still more than a week to go before a streamed performance on 23 June – I’m intrigued by how much I’ve learned.

But are open rehearsals a good idea? There was a pivotal moment when Gregory Doran – who shares direction of the project with Owen Horsley – quoted a letter he’d received from an actor who said “the rehearsal room is sacrosanct – actors must not be exposed like this”. I spoke to a veteran actor who said she too was horrified by the idea of the public witnessing the trial and error that takes place in a rehearsal room.

I fully get that but there are extenuating circumstances that justify this experiment. As Jamie Wilkes, one of the company, pointed out: “It is about the process – not the product.” There is none of the pressure of an imminent press night or fully staged production. Mariah Gale also shrewdly observed that what works for an ensemble piece such as Henry VI Part One would be less suited to Hamlet or Macbeth, where individuals wrestle with intractable problems. But the ultimate vindication is that, for both participants and spectators, there is a peculiar joy about total immersion in Shakespeare after 15 barren, largely Bard-free months.

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